The ancient art of baijiu
September 11, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

"China's traditional grain spirit, baijiu, has evolved—mostly in obscurity—along a trajectory that has no Western equivalent." "Whereas Western grain alcohols are fermented and distilled in liquid form, the Chinese perform both processes in a solid state ..."
posted by ChuckRamone (58 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Fun factoid: Sorghum itself doesn't contain enough starch for conversion to sugar to allow for fermentation of the grain. You need to either add other grains or sugar in some form to make that happen.

There is however sorghum called sweet sorghum. The stalks can be used to provide the sugar the actual grain is lacking.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:29 AM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh my god, baijiu. I don't want it to have a western equivalent, because then I might once again face social pressure to drink it, and that stuff will knock you back. As much as I've often, often wished I was in a position to go back to work in China, one small relief is that I will never again have to drink baijiu just to be polite.
posted by Frowner at 11:36 AM on September 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

Huh. I had never heard of Job's tears before, and I thought I was familiar with most grain crops.
posted by tavella at 11:42 AM on September 11, 2014

Hairy Lobster, most grains are malted in order to convert starch to sugar. Sorgum grain's carbohydrate content is similar to wheat and only slightly less than "sugary" maize. The raw "sugar" content of sorgum grain is along the same level as barley, and we all know that successfully ferments after malting.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding "oh god, baijiu." I did a study-abroad program in China and most of my group was under 21 so we were unbelievably excited to have unlimited legal access to cheap alcohol.

The main drinks of choice: 2%-3% ABV beers, or baijiu. Which we for some reason occasionally mixed with Qoo, which is possibly the only thing that can make baijiu taste worse. Even the good stuff was pretty dismal tasting.

There was one kind called xifeng I think? That was actually really awesome.

The rest, oh man, I gag just thinking about it. and yet still have a fondness for the idea of it (and for watching our professors/elders/official people doing shots of it competitively at dinner). I will look at it nostalgically when I see it in a store and then reconsider after remembering what it actually tastes like.
posted by ghostbikes at 11:59 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've never had a baiju I thought was palatable.

The brewing process sounds pretty similar to Nihonshu. Given the difference between Shochu and baiju I think we should thank the Persians for spreading distillation around.
posted by JPD at 12:04 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The 10th Regiment of Foot:
"Hairy Lobster, most grains are malted in order to convert starch to sugar. Sorgum grain's carbohydrate content is similar to wheat and only slightly less than "sugary" maize. The raw "sugar" content of sorgum grain is along the same level as barley, and we all know that successfully ferments after malting."
Hm, interesting. I know of malting of course which is why I mentioned conversion from starches to sugar. The bit about sorghum not having sufficient levels for fermentation came from conversations with a few whisky producers. I guess they were misinformed themselves.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:23 PM on September 11, 2014

I occasionally make huangjiu or some half-assed analogue of it at home (there's fermented rice-based beverages produced all across East Asia, all of which have deep and unique traditions that I know almost nothing about). It's astonishingly easy:

Crush yeast balls (also known as jiuqu, and which are actually yeast plus one or more molds that break down the rice into sugars) and mix with cooked and cooled rice in a sterilised mason jar. Keep the jar almost closed, but not sealed, put in a cupboard and forget about it for a few weeks. When you remember about it, you'll find much less rice than you put in floating in some yellow-ish liquid. There may be some mould on it - this is usually nothing to worry about, unless it looks/smells off or there's a lot of it. Strain the rice (which by now is a sticky/gritty mass) and store in a bottle. There'll be some lees/ particulates that should settle out but they don't make much difference to the taste. The longer you left it, the dryer the resulting rice wine will be. If it's not quite done fermenting then don't store in a tightly sealed bottle as it will possibly carbonate itself and explode all over your fridge.

I'm sure this is to real rice wine what apple juice, sugar and turbo-yeast are to cider, but it's surprisingly nice for such a small investment of time and money.
posted by xchmp at 12:29 PM on September 11, 2014

A colleague of mine gave me a bottle of Baiju, which led to this AskMefi - from which JMOZ's quote;
Said one Chinese colleague to another Chinese colleague who brought this to an Anglo colleague as a gift, "The white people aren't ready for this!"
...highly amused said colleague
posted by Luddite at 12:31 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I actually like baijiu, in the way I like but only occasionally eat powerful cheese.

I hated it the first time(s) I tried it, but it grows on you. I will totally admit that the initial novelty was part of what one me over -- I was simultaneously happy and disappointed to find you could get it in New York -- but it really does end up being something you get in the mood for. And the flavor seems to vary pretty widely; all baijiu seems to be pretty heavy duty in terms of flavor and kick, but if you hate one you might not hate others. I like the (apparently) cheaper stuff when it's not too sweet, but I sprung a fancy bottle of Maotai at the duty free in Beijing and tried it when I got to the US: it was way more grainy and not as appealing.

I don't really know much about the spirit beyond having tried a few brands. But, if you don't like it, try subbing it for cachaça in a caipirinha. Cachaça is an easier spirit, but it's got a rubbery funk that's sort of a cousin to the funk you get in baijiu.

Ice, lime, brown sugar, baijiu, stir. Small sips, big flavor. It is totally tasty.
posted by postcommunism at 12:35 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Drinking a big shot of long preserved "sauce-fragrance" Moutai, a baijiu brand, unprepared, in the aftermath of a dinner party, was a singular experience. You know in old Twilight Zone episodes or EC comics, how a character can tell something's gone terribly wrong by the expressions of other people looking at them? That they're turning into a werewolf or an alien or something? I could see, around the table, that something hideous was happening to me by the way everyone was cracking up as my face morphed into a monster mask of panic. In approximate order:

-- "Hey, this is kind of like tangy soy sauce, interesting"
-- A soy sauce mummy, preserved in a sarcophagus filled with musty paperback books and decaying heaps of autumn leaves, rose from his crypt after a thousand years and punched me in the mouth
-- It became clear that I had somehow accidentally swallowed a campfire, as my mouth filled with a taste that combined eye-watering, stinging camp smoke and the smell of a damp, mildewing old sleeping bag you're going to have to sleep in, and my chest heated up to about 500 degrees
-- I began spontaneously sweating
-- Finally, the aftertaste: as though a thick paste of incredibly strong lapsang souchong and that kind of plasticky-smelling sealant you use on windows had been squirted directly into my neck with a caulking gun

... this was followed, after an interval, by a sense of great calm and geniality. I spent the rest of the night talking other people into trying it. Can't recommend it enough!
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 12:43 PM on September 11, 2014 [40 favorites]

posted by Kabanos at 12:46 PM on September 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

The brewing process sounds pretty similar to Nihonshu.

I was thinking the same thing. The one-step starch-to-sugar-to-ferment process sounds exactly like what the koji/yeast blend does to rice. As a home brewer, I've always thought it sounded way more finicky than the fairly simple heat-based way we break down starches for beer, though.

Postcommunism, where can you find it in NY? I've never tried baiju, and considering my general love of liquor of all types I'd like to give it a try.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:49 PM on September 11, 2014

Last time I picked some up was from a Chinatown liquor store on Mott st. You should be able to get a couple small bottles of the cheaper stuff no problem.

Well-stocked non-Chinatown liquor stores may also have it, but I haven't specifically checked any in NY.
posted by postcommunism at 1:00 PM on September 11, 2014

The only way I could think to describe it to people was watermelon flavored nail polish remover. Baijiu does NOT fuck around. I saw it floor more than one hapless visitor and swore off of it after one time. Blargh
posted by Bibliogeek at 1:05 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Having lived in China for three years, I've had more than my fair share of obligatory encounters with baijiu. I didn't drink when I lived in China so I doubly hated the drink!

Two stories come to mind involving baijiu from my time in China:

1. We were staying at a cheap hotel in Nanchang and it was miserably cold. I heated up water in the room's tea kettle and poured it into the plastic coffee mugs provided with the room. The room was overtaken with an unmistakable flowery smell. We started sniffing around, trying to figure out the culprit. It gradually dawned on us that the smell was baijiu and that it was coming from the cups! Somehow their plastic had been infused with the stink of baijiu and the hot water let it out.

2. Walking down a street near Nanjing Normal University, I saw a man who looked to be of Arabic or Turkish descent sitting outside a roadside drink kiosk (he might have been Uighur or might have been from abroad; there are many foreign students and other expats in Nanjing; in any case, he wasn't ethnic Chinese and my stereotype is that baijiu is drunk mostly by Chinese.). I saw him get up from the chair, grab two full 100ml bottles of cheap roadside kiosk baijiu from the ground next to where he was sitting and move to the curbside. He undid the bottlecaps and shotgunned one bottle after the other. Only a few seconds passed, and both bottles were empty. He started to cross the road, but doubled back to the kiosk. More?!?, I thought. Instead, he bought a larger bottle of orange Fanta and started back across the street. While picking his way through traffic, he slowly sipped the Fanta.
posted by msbrauer at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Deathmarch, I am teetotal and therefore will never taste this stuff, but you just had me laughing for a solid minute at your reaction. I can only imagine what your tablemates must have thought.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 1:13 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

This post prompted me to go take a swig of a bottle of baijiu a friend of ours brought back from China several months ago, because I couldn't for the life of me remember what it tasted like.

Bad post. I hate you, post. :(
posted by obfuscation at 1:15 PM on September 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

I misread the title as "Unearthing China’s Ancient Terror in Maotai," which would fairly describe how many westerners feel about the stuff.

For a neat introduction to cheap Baijiu, there is this helpful video.

If you're willing to spend a bit more than 8 kuai at the local store for Er Guo Tou brand, there is such a thing as good baijiu, which is not unlike sambuca. No, really.
posted by the thing about it at 1:47 PM on September 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

yeah there are a lot of volatile components in it. I bet your liver is happy to go back to western booze after you've threatened it with this stuff.
posted by JPD at 1:53 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a hip-flask sized bottle of Beijing erguotou sitting on my kitchen windowsill to remind me why baijiu should never be consumed by anyone, in any quantity, ever. The stuff is unbelievably foul and there is no reason to consume it if anything else is available. The adjectives used in Chinese to describe various kinds are pure fantasy. They are universally disgusting, and I wouldn't use them to clean mechanic's tools for fear of what they'd do to chromoly steel.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:59 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

This may be a question for ask mefi, but can anyone direct me to some high quality baijus for sale on the interwebs? I'm intrigued by those that may be sweet, herbal, or porter-like. If it helps, I'd like to think I have a very open palette, because the first time I tried Jeppson's Malort, I actually really liked it.
posted by Perko at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2014

"China's traditional grain spirit, baijiu, has evolved—mostly in obscurity—along a trajectory that has no Western equivalent."

I have titles turned off, and when I saw this on the front page I was very excited to think that the Chinese had developed an entirely new kind of food-based religion which is somehow compatible with modern technological existence.

. . . . and so they have, apparently.
posted by jamjam at 2:12 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

A while back I was in China and friend asked me bring then something uniquely Chinese. I bought them a $7.00 bottle of Baijiu, be careful what you wish for.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:17 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

In my business Chinese class we learned to say baijiu very early on (translated as "white wine"), which mystified us. After one week in China, we had the "aha!" moment when we went to lunch with some tutors and ended up drinking egutou with the meal like it was water...

I think there are a few bottles of Maotai in my office, received as gifts. May have to open one just to remind myself.
posted by gemmy at 2:28 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The raw "sugar" content of sorghum grain is along the same level as barley, and we all know that successfully ferments after malting.

This is irrelevant. It's not the sugar that's the issue but the enzymes which are necessary for conversion of starch to sugar. These enzymes are activated or created by the malting process with grains like barley or wheat. Perhaps there aren't enough enzymes for sorghum.
posted by Slothrup at 2:34 PM on September 11, 2014

Perko, I dig Malort but it is some babytown frolics shit compared to some of the truly awful liquors out there. I remember the first time I tried it: I went in with crazy expectations, and my ultimate response was "this is Fernet for weak people". Compared to something like arak, malort is downright pleasant. There are some horrible things out there...
posted by Itaxpica at 2:39 PM on September 11, 2014

I used to drink erguotou pretty regularly ... it's an ok drink once you get used to it. And for price, potency, and portability (the three P's of liquor?), xiao er -- the little 100ml bottles of 56% liquor that cost less than US$0.50 -- can't be beat.

A friend of a friend is a baijiu connoisseur who blogs about all things baijiu -- from food pairings to cocktails. I'm a little disappointed I didn't find out about "good baijiu" until after leaving China.
posted by bradf at 3:26 PM on September 11, 2014

Huh... I'm not really even a big drinker but I like baijiu alright. (I'm also ethnic Han Chinese.) Maotai is the traditional fancy brand but Wuliangye is the hot shit these days.

It's definitely a sipping liquor... shotgunning is generally a bad idea outside of ganbei occasions.

If you want to find some to try, any liquor store in a Chinatown or liquor selling Chinese grocery store will have it. Don't buy the super cheap stuff, but the midrange ones should be alright.
posted by kmz at 3:36 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like many other people on here, I too gave into social pressure and the understanding that my Chinese counterparts enjoyed watching how much westerners can knock back.

At our table, there was a long discussion around what kind to order. It got quite heated. When I asked what the issue was, my co-worker explained that he was pressing them to get the good kind, not the ones made in industrial zones known for causing blindness. I told him that I was glad to have him looking out for me. I don't know if that's urban legend or hyperbole, but what we got must have been the good stuff, because the bottle came out in a ceremonious parade, accompanied by what I can as best describe as an "unboxing party". Instead of an iPhone however, it was a bottle of liquid that tasted like sugar sweet candy dissolved into acetone.

I polished off about half the bottle, and don't remember much, other than tasting it over and over again the next day.

If I were to curate a selection of the world's most inexplicably nasty/popular beverages, it would be on the top of the list.
posted by buck09 at 4:06 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sorry. Kumys will always win that battle.
posted by JPD at 4:12 PM on September 11, 2014

Hoo, Moutai. That was served in endless quantity at my brother's wedding in Guiyang province, which of course involved the required shots on a regular basis. My brother, no fool (and not a drinker), arranged to get a white porcelain bottle of water at his table, so he managed to survive the night sober.

My brother's strategy did not, however, defend him against the traditional end-of-dinner-drink, in which the remains of all the plates on the table are drained into a tumblr and topped off with baijiu, which the groom has to drink in one shot. Bleargh.

(The bride's family took pity on most of us visiting Westerners and gave us orange drink and Great Wall of China red wine at our table. Though my then-78-year-old father did exchange shots with the father of the bride. Frankly, the baijiu might have been a better choice than that wine.)
posted by suelac at 4:14 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, is there any I can find with decent price and quality in a PA state store?
posted by Drinky Die at 4:26 PM on September 11, 2014

Wait, is this that stuff you can buy in individual shot glasses for less than a bus ticket and it has a festive foil top that you peel off like a layer of sanity from your soul

and then like 18 hours later you wake up behind the noodle place around the corner from your hutong and you smell like pee but you know instinctively that it is not your own

i dont like that stuff
posted by poffin boffin at 4:33 PM on September 11, 2014 [27 favorites]

poffin that sounds t r a n s c e n d e n t and the Bad Ideas part of my brain is insisting that i need to find and drink that booze
posted by beefetish at 4:42 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

it is the most bad
posted by poffin boffin at 5:23 PM on September 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

poffin boffin yes, and your story is almost the same as mine vis a vis baijiu except that all of the details are different. But it's the same story.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:10 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

For a neat introduction to cheap Baijiu, there is this helpful video.

It's like My Drunk Kitchen except without the kitchen.
posted by scalefree at 6:35 PM on September 11, 2014

I visited my girlfriend's parents in the mainland during Spring Festival and was practically waterboarded with the stuff. At least where I was (Harbin, near Russia), those guys can drink

This just made me realize i've had this stuff. My partners parents are Ukrainian(well, Armenian, but they lived there), and one of their best friends is from that area of china.

Her grandpa brought some kind of russian cognac, and really strong gin("This gin... very strong... be careful.. ;)" *enormous grandpa backslap*). I brought wine and whiskey.

The chinese dude brought this stuff.

And since it seems like anyone who speaks russian is contractually obligated to cheers every 2 minutes, what happened next was essentially a four horsemen of the apocalypse of booze.

Her 90ish year old grandpa, still working it after several heart attacks, and that chinese dude fucking wrecked everyone. It was a graveyard before 11pm and we started at like 6. It was like watching one of those videos of dogs after the vet that are still super high on anasthesia chopped and screwed into some tim and eric style nightmare.

I swear, i took one 2oz shot of it and i could actually feel my brain getting dumber. It was like the alcohol equivalent of taking a dab of hash oil. I could practically hear that noise the enterprise makes as it comes out of warp speed. It did that even stronger and harder than 151 rum does, and it felt a lot quicker too(although i guess one cant really do shots of 151. but somehow can with this)

And then 20 minutes later i remembered that i had bought all of my friends christmas presents except my best friends sister, and that we needed to go to toys r us NOW while they were still open.

I got there and the manager had closed early, despite the posted hours on the door. I think i actually threatened to kill him and fuck his corpse. "THIS DOOR ISN'T GOING TO STOP ME".

They almost had to use to the wheelchair lift to help me get on the bus home, and then when i got home my roommates and neighbors were all drinking at my house like "Hey, emptythought! whats up! want a beer and shot?"


I woke up in bed with a trail of arrows made out of beer cans leading to my shower, which had a big -----> pointing at the knobs. I thought i might have been hit by a car staggering home from the bus stop because my entire fucking body hurt. So i drank all 8 or whatever beers, took a long shower, and went to go open christmas presents.

Fucking baijiu man, at least i didn't piss myself or get pissed on. I am pretty sure some other shameful stuff happened though.
posted by emptythought at 6:46 PM on September 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

What if I go to Jersey, anywhere there? Near Philly.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:11 PM on September 11, 2014

thrilling update: upon conferring with my cousin's old roommate it turns out that the mystery pee was from an infant that i apparently angered greatly and which for reasons still unclear to all present i was jovially dandling upon my knee
posted by poffin boffin at 7:13 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

there it is, the most shameful moment of my life laid bare
posted by poffin boffin at 7:13 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

the worst thing is that you got drunk and a baby peed on you in anger?
posted by beefetish at 8:54 PM on September 11, 2014

man now i want to drink this stuff even more and see what kind of advanced comedy urine experience i will have
posted by beefetish at 8:55 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

no it's that i voluntarily enjoyed the presence of a baby, they are monstrous creatures
posted by poffin boffin at 10:08 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

After my last trip to China (wherein I toured the Fenjiu factory-city), I tried to convince the proprietor of a fancy liquor store here in Seattle that Baijiu was the next hipster hotness and that he should get some. No luck. But maybe this article heralds the beginning of the trend? Ganbei indeed.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:17 PM on September 11, 2014

Everything that poffin boffin says appears in my head as an Allie Brosh comic
posted by destrius at 12:11 AM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Baijiu was, I think, the first alcohol I ever drank in college that was not beer or wine. Freshman year, but we'd befriended a junior who'd just returned from study abroad in China and inflicted the beverage upon us.

That was not, suffice it to say, the best introduction to the world of liquor.
posted by pemberkins at 5:02 AM on September 12, 2014

There's baijiu and there's baijiu. The cheap nasty stuff (such as 'sanbian' or '3 penis' baijiu) comes in small bottles that cost a few pennies and taste and feel like nail-polish remover mixed with battery acid. Then there's the expensive moutai with its sweet, smooth flavor and delicious fiery tingle. They are not the same drink.

Still, even the good stuff is pretty hard on the body. It's been some years since I lived in China, but coincidentally tonight (before seeing this thread) I was in a Chinese restaurant where I went to visit the bathroom and was bowled over by a powerful blast of the unmistakably sickly-sweet odor of baijiu-vomit from one of the cubicles. It triggered vivid memories in the way that only olfactory recall can.
posted by moorooka at 5:36 AM on September 12, 2014

These days most of the "good stuff" is fake, just like most of the French Bordeaux or Burgundies sold in China.
posted by mono blanco at 5:51 AM on September 12, 2014

an Allie Brosh comic

she is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last
posted by poffin boffin at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2014

Vinn is one of the distilleries on the Distillery Row tour here in Portland. A business run by two or three sisters from their parents recipe. First baijiu that I've tried, and not sure now it compares to those made in China, but enjoyed it. Stop by and have a taste when you're in town.
posted by asfuller at 9:00 AM on September 12, 2014

But by careful manipulation, producers achieve astonishing biodiversity within the qu.

posted by StickyCarpet at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2014

Oh man, this is also bringing me back to my study abroad times... I might still have a bottle hanging out at home. The worst part about it is that the tiniest sip will instantly expand and fill your entire mouth with the overwhelming weird, awful flavor.

Malort is much easier-drinking, and has a lower alcohol content too.
posted by Fig at 10:35 AM on September 12, 2014

posted by beefetish at 8:54 PM on September 12, 2014

Wait, is this that stuff you can buy in individual shot glasses for less than a bus ticket and it has a festive foil top that you peel off like a layer of sanity from your soul

and then like 18 hours later you wake up behind the noodle place around the corner from your hutong and you smell like pee but you know instinctively that it is not your own

i dont like that stuff
Those would be "Mongolian Shots" as far as I know. Unsure whether or not it is actually Baijiu, as I've never had one.
posted by flippant at 2:36 AM on September 13, 2014

In my experience, cheap and expensive baijiu exist on a pretty consistent spectrum.

There's harsh to smooth, obviously, but taste wise, what starts out as a nebulous tutti frutti-like aromatic (plus sweaty socks, for the really cheap ones) slowly morphs into a sort-of pleasant, more apple kernel-like, almondy thing you get in some champagnes.

Can't say I would ever spend the kind of money "good" Baijiu seems to command (especially Moutai, with a ludicrous price these days after having been hyperinflated by corruption; it's used as "gifts", often in the multiple thousands of bottles).
posted by flippant at 2:41 AM on September 13, 2014

My first experience with baijiu was in Taipei, on a term in Asia. The owner of the restaurant wanted to show his gratitude (or something) for the school's decision to have over eighty students and four teachers eat there. They did this by drinking shot after shot of baijiu with the head teacher. After a certain point, our dear professor could drink no more, and called for students that would drink for him. Hey, it's just this little thimble of booze, how bad could it be?

Somehow, I managed to spill a good portion of the baijiu across my chin (it felt cold, instantly, like when they rub you with alcohol to draw blood). It tasted like cotton candy and cold oiled hatred. I had maybe half a shot, which, with baijiu. Is roughly half a shot anyway. I had to go to the bathroom immediately, where I gripped the sink white knuckled and took deep, deep breaths for about ten minutes, willing the amazing meal I'd just had to stay in my stomach. Ten long, cold sweat minutes. I've never tried so hard not to puke in my life, from less than a mouthful of baijiu.

I wish I could say that's the last I ever had of it, but after college, I lived in China for a year. Baijiu makes arak look like a fine sipping wine by comparison.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:26 AM on September 13, 2014

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